Texts for Preaching:
Liturgical poem: “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog” by Alicia Ostriker: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53677/the-blessing-of-the-old-woman-the-tulip-and-the-dog
Oh, that gospel is my nightmare.
So this starts with a confession of sorts.
I have this thing I do
when I am feeling stressed,
that has to do with numbers.
You see, I like numbers –
which is a terrific irony because I flunked math in high school,
literally flunked it.
Of course, I was a problem child as a teenager,
primed for failure
with alcohol and drugs
along with family issues.
But all that to the side, I got a big fat “F” in geometry
and the next year
had to drop out of Algebra II
to avoid another one.
But still, I like numbers.
I can remember numbers in a way
I cannot remember other stuff –
I don’t know why.
In one of my parishes
there were several budgets,
the sum of which exceeded a million dollars
and most of the time I had total recall of those numbers.
Why, when I can’t remember where I put my phone,
can I remember where a decimal point is?
Anyway, when I get stressed out,
one of my go-to habits is to run numbers
related to my eventual retirement.
I have been doing this for years and years.
I never met a retirement calculator I didn’t like.
I have a theory about why this is comforting to me.
Most of what I do,
whether in ministry or writing,
has no real perimeter or measurement.
Teachers must have this dilemma too.
You don’t really get to know the outcome of your work
because it is a work in progress
that disappears over the horizon.
Anyway, that is why I think I find it comforting
to play with and obsess over numbers.
They are measurable and neat.
It is like cutting grass – a meaningless activity
that gives me an unreasonable satisfaction
because I can see the results of what I did.
But this gospel haunts my doing it.
It keeps me from taking any real pleasure
in my mindless obsession with numbers
because that little voice says,
“You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you.”
It is all the more bitter an irony, of course,
because I have no storehouse of grain
to sit back like Jabba-the-hut and grin over.
I play with the numbers
but they all turn out the same anyway – hopefully enough
so we don’t end up on our kid’s doorstep
but no barns to pull down and build up
in which to store a fortune.
And yet, there is that voice
as I am nearing the conclusion of my obsession-session
that chuckles in a dark kind of way:
“Heee-heee-heee, it’s all dust you idiot.
From dust you were born
and to dust you shall return.”
Welcome to the “Good News” of Jesus Christ.
One of the reasons I trust Jesus so much,
is that he kicks my butt
at least as much as he comforts my sorrows.
To go along with that awesome poem,
if we can’t smell the presence of God
in what is on our shoe,
then what we are smelling from the rose
probably ain’t God either.
(“The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog” by Alicia Ostriker).
Think about this now.
Those who told the story of Israel
actually believed they had been rung
through the ringer of the Assyrian Empire.
Whether you think Hosea was interpreting history
with clear vision, or, you think God
would never have done that, it is important to note
that the prophets of Israel believed it.
They thought it happened just that way.
They believed that God loved them like a child,
but even though they were beloved of God,
God still watched them grind through the shredder.
Likewise, whether or not you believe
that Jesus was tortured and executed for our sake,
or he was tortured and executed
because that is just what we do to people
who threaten our power equations,
it is important to note that his survivors
began to see his death that way –
like Hosea and Israel, they saw Jesus as a child of God
who God allowed to be ground in the shredder.
Again, whether or not that is true
is not the question because, honestly,
we can never know the answer.
But it is amazing
that our theological and spiritual tradition
is not afraid
to incorporate the aftermath
of tragedy, injustice,
brutality, violence, and random horrors
into our salvation history.
It is not all blessing and prosperity
as so much of popular Christianity wants to proclaim.
We come out of a tradition
that knew the smell of blood
as much as it knew the fragrance of hope –
and maybe a lot more of the blood.
So how do we make sense of that in our day?
First of all, let me acknowledge up front
that I do not have the answer
and no one I know or read has the answer.
But here is how I contextualize it theologically.
People who study such things
believe that a crater on Mars –
that is 75 miles wide –
is the remnant of a massive collision with a meteor
that generated Empire State Building-high tsunamis
on that planet’s long-lost ocean.
Do we imagine God sent that meteor
hurling through space to Mars?
The Earth had such a catastrophic collision
that pretty much extinguished 75% of plant and animal life
and left a fifty mile wide crater off Mexico.
Do we imagine that God
sought to punish the dinosaurs?
We probably do not ascribe to those ancient events
a divine causality – a God driven catastrophe.
Instead, we could easily imagine
they were random events –
with no cause other than the ones we know from physics,
which have to do with trajectory and speed and motion.
Instead, then, of wondering how God
is involved in cancer and oppression and
murders and violence, we could assume that God is not.
Rather, we might assume
that God is the creator of the cosmos
and somehow PRESENT in all of it –
present in the fire of a star enveloped in a black hole
as much as God is present
in the sorrow of grief over someone we have lost.
We could imagine God of the sparrow and God of the whale
is also God of the asteroid and God of the volcano –
and that the love of God
is not a pen-light focused on something we care about,
but somehow connected and connecting ALL OF IT.
What if the LOVE of God
was not perceptible or knowable in small pieces
apart from all of what we see and know
and imagine but still cannot fathom?
What if the LOVE of God was – all of it?
What if the LOVE of God
was the presence of holiness
in everything we know
but imperceptible and indistinguishable
without the whole?
You see, because we are such a small little part,
we see everything in relationship to ourselves.
If it doesn’t have an impact on us
and it cannot be measured by how it helps or hurts us,
we have difficulty seeing it.
What good is a God that doesn’t take an order
for health and wholeness from us?
What good is a God we cannot pray to
and place an order for peace and prosperity?
But what if the good news
was only that God is present with us
in all of it,
and present with us in everything?
And what if that PRESENCE
didn’t necessarily change anything
but at the same time
made everything a blessing?
What if we had the eyes of Hosea
to see that whether or not something was
good or bad for US,
God is indeed present
and that presence itself
is itself the sign of great love?
What if God’s LOVE,
was not reflected in a storehouse of wealth
or a social security check,
but instead, was simply seen
in God’s presence with us
no matter what was happening with us
or to us
or between us?
I wonder how that would change things?
You see, I think that wanting to have God
at the fine end of a magic wand
is a kind of greed
that Jesus was warning against.
I think that expecting God
to change the laws of nature
so they shift the trajectory of a meteor that is due
to land where we live,
is a kind of greed –
a spiritual lust
that places ourselves as the sun
at the center of the solar system.
It is quite natural, of course, to be self-centered
and to care most specifically
about what happens to us.
But it seems to me
a kind of spiritual rudeness
to insist that God be mixed up in our greed.
Please do not hear me refusing to accept
that weird and amazing things happen.
Healings and curings that defy logic
do in fact happen.
Unexpected reprieves do take place.
The path of meteors and comets do change.
So far, we are too small to understand how or why.
But we can be awed by such events
and exceedingly grateful when they happen.
But here is the thing we do not fully appreciate about God,
and this notion that God’s LOVE
consists in God being present
in every moment
and in everything
and ever was.
What is there in the world,
at least the world we know about,
that is more powerful
and more saving than simple presence?
When we are in pain,
when we are afraid,
when we are lonely,
when we are grieving,
when we are full of sorrow…
what is there
other than the simple presence of someone who loves us,
that makes any difference at all?
Honestly, I do not know what Hosea saw or believed,
and it is an impossible stretch
to take what I am saying
and put it into his mouth,
or on the tongue of those
who interpreted the death of Jesus like they did.
But coming to appreciate the power
of God’s presence,
and to see that presence as pure LOVE,
is not a violation of that ancient spiritual wisdom either.
To that ghostly voice
that reminds me I am dust,
I can say, “and so is God.
God is dust,
and in the dust with me.”
that is the “good news” of Jesus Christ.